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Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

Conversational dynamics of humour:

the telephone game in Greek
Eleni Antonopoulou*, Maria Sifianou
Faculty of English Studies, School of Philosophy, University of Athens,
Panepistimioupoli Zografou, 157 84 Athens, Greece
Received 20 December 2001; received in revised form 2 October 2002

The aim of this paper is to investigate humorous exchanges in Greek telephone conversation
openings in the light of Raskin’s (Raskin, Victor, 1985. Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. D. Reidel,
Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster) and Attardo’s (Attardo, Salvatore, 1994. Linguistic Theories of
Humor. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin; Attardo, Salvatore, 2001. Humorous Texts: A Semantic and
Pragmatic Analysis. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin) semantico-pragmatic theories of humour and the
principles of conversation analysis regarding telephone interaction [Sacks, Harvey, 1995. In: Jef-
ferson, G. (Ed.), Lectures on Conversation, Vols I and II. Blackwell, Oxford (1963, 1970, 1972)
(reprint) and Schegloff, Emanuel A., 1972. Sequencing in conversational openings. In: Gumperz,
J.J. and Hymes, D. (Eds.), Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, pp. 346–380 (1968) (reprint)]. The material analysed (268
humorous exchanges between young adults) shows that such interactions are understood as a game,
with interlocutors negotiating and co-constructing tacit rules involving a deliberate attack on social
and linguistic conventions while at the same time creating a new code pertaining to in-group mem-
bers only. The exchanges examined involve wordplay, insincere enquiries, complaints and repri-
mands. Wordplay in natural conversation has been attributed both an aggressive and a disruptive
function (Norrick, Neal R., 1993. Conversational Joking. Indiana University Press, Bloomington,
Indianapolis). Our data point to degrees of disruption, in that despite the playfulness of the
exchanges, the canonical pattern including preemptive moves is preserved in most cases. Aggres-
sion, on the other hand, is also shown to be scalar and to serve primarily bonding purposes. In the
light of the findings we propose a bridge between the GTVH, CA and politeness theory (Brown,
Penelope and Stephen Levinson, 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge), with accompanying modifications considered necessary to account
for this type of data and possibly for dialogic material of other types.
# 2003 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Conversation analysis; General theory of verbal humor; Politeness; Social and linguistic
conventions; Telephone call openings; Greek

* Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: (E. Antonopoulou), (M. Sifianou).

0378-2166/02/$ - see front matter # 2003 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII: S0378-2166(02)00150-9
742 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

1. Introduction

This paper attempts to investigate humour in Greek telephone conversation

openings between young adults. Such openings instantiate a very specific speech
event governed by well-established linguistic and social conventions providing a
framework against which interesting deviations can be studied. As our data reveal,
verbal play is an essential aspect of telephone conversation openings between inti-
mates with humorous utterances replacing turns and/or sequences of the canonical
pattern (see Section 2.1). The most striking features in the data examined are play-
fulness but also aggression.
The aggressive nature of humour has been extensively discussed in the literature,
psychological, sociological and linguistic (see Attardo, 1993: 555). However, such
research has focused on the function of aggressive jokes targeted at out-group
members, thereby reinforcing the bonds between in-group members. Here reflexive
aggression is exhibited by both interlocutors targeting each other and by extension
rule governed behaviour in order to maintain intimacy (see Kotthoff, 1996; cf also
Tannen and Kakava, 1992).
The playful nature of the data is worth exploring within the framework of theories
of humour, especially the General Theory of Verbal Humor (henceforth GTVH)
(Attardo and Raskin, 1991; Attardo, 1994, 2001) (see Section 2.2). Playfulness
exhibited in the data shows that the type of interaction we are examining is under-
stood by our subjects as a specific game where both interlocutors follow tacit rules.
These rules are co-constructed and probably negotiated at every exchange, involving
a deliberate attack at standard conventions while at the same time leading to the
creation of a new code pertaining to in-group members only. Culturally specific
indirect mechanisms are eloquently discussed and exemplified in Kotthoff (1999:
135) where implicit norm negotiation is understood as ‘‘a metapragmatic function of
humorous communication in the sense of an indirect indexing of shared values in
orientation to each other’’. We, therefore, consider the material analysed illuminat-
ing as to the role of humour within the domain of in-group negotiation of social
norms. We also consider the strategies employed interpretable in the light of using
discourse for bonding purposes (cf Attardo, 1993: 556), an obvious priority for any
social group which is positive politeness oriented (see Sifianou, 1992). We are inter-
ested in exploring: (1) how the humour in these instances is best analysed and (2)
what specific sociocultural purposes it serves in this context.
The data analysed consist of 121 telephone call openings recorded with the aid of
a small cassette player attached to the plug of five different people’s telephone. Thus
both in-coming and out-going calls were recorded. In addition, another 675 instan-
ces were analysed from data collected by students who were asked to record their
own telephone openings (both self-initiated and received) and transcribe them as
accurately as possible on a specially prepared observation sheet. All subjects col-
lecting the data filled in contextual information, such as the gender, approximate
age, status, and degree of familiarity between interlocutors. Telephone interactions
between strangers were excluded from the sample (796 exchanges in all). Our corpus
includes exchanges primarily between conversationalists having ‘‘personal’’ and
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‘‘familiar’’ symmetrical relationships (see Pavlidou, 1994: 491 for this classification).
Of these, 268 included some kind of humorous utterance. The specific strategies used
may largely reflect the disposition and sociocultural conditions of our subjects
(mainly Greek university students from various regional backgrounds). We will first
present briefly the institutional frame for telephone conversation openings in terms
of Conversation Analysis (henceforth CA) and then discuss a possible application of
the GTVH to such conversational material. We are in full agreement with Attardo
(1994: 293) that ‘‘conversation analysis is the field of linguistics best suited for
investigating humor in its spontaneous setting’’, which should, however, incorporate
social aspects of context (see Mey, 1993: 185). A detailed analysis of the data and a
final discussion of the relevant theoretical issues will follow.

2. Theoretical background

2.1. Telephone conversation openings

Work on opening telephone interactions pioneered by Sacks ([1963] 1995) and

expanded by Schegloff ([1968] 1972) identifies a set of four core sequences typical of
such interactions in North America. These are: (1) a summons/answer sequence, (2)
an identification and/or recognition sequence, (3) a greeting sequence and (4) an
exchange of ‘howareyou’ sequences. This pattern has been characterised as canoni-
cal and is assumed to be universal.
In relation to Greece, this canonical pattern is only evidenced between con-
versationalists whose relationship is distant, either vertically or horizontally, and
even in such cases an interlocking rather than a serial organisation seems to be pre-
ferred.1 Between closely related interlocutors, the actual canonical pattern, that is,
the most frequently followed one, normally involves only two sequences, those of
summons/answer and ‘howareyous’, through which mutual recognition is achieved
(Sifianou, 2002). This pattern reflects the fact that in Greek both callers and
answerers expect other recognition and avoid explicit self-identification, as earlier
research has shown (Bakakou-Orfanou, 1988–1989; Pavlidou, 1994; Sifianou, 1989).
Failure of recognition seems to be interpreted as name forgetting (see Brown and
Levinson, 1987: 37). In addition, greetings are not as frequent in Greek as are initial
In some cases, before the opening is fully worked out, one of the interlocutors may
introduce the first topic in a ‘‘preemptive move’’ (Schegloff, 1986: 133). Of special
interest to us in this paper are preemptive moves involving complaints (ibid.: 144).
These are usually contact related and are performed by answerers, while for callers
preemption usually involves extrinsic matters of urgency.
In relation to the language used in Greek telephone call openings, a further issue
of relevance is the rather personal style for answering a home telephone, given the

Serial organisation means that there are four clearly identifiable sequences whereas in interlocking
organisation, some turns have two or three components (Schegloff, 1986: 130–131).
744 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

variety of linguistic expressions available to respond to the summons. Some of these

are: l""" ‘speak.PL’, l! ‘please’, 
or l
 ‘yes’, " ó& ‘go ahead’,
oı´ " ‘order.IMP’, the infrequent "l ‘come’,2 and even combinations of these like
l""" l! ‘speak please’ or o
o& "ı´ 
l! ‘who is it please?’3 As in
all languages, what the answerer essentially indicates is that contact has been estab-
lished so the caller can go ahead and speak. From this variety of utterances, speak-
ers typically adopt one for regular use thus providing a ‘‘signature’’ similar to the
‘‘signature hello’’, that is, ‘‘a distinctive mode of delivery, more or less standardised
across occasions, which provides for ready recognition’’ (Schegloff, 1979, 1986: 123).
In addition to the above organisational and linguistic conventions, there are social
conventions governing telephone calls. The primary function of the telephone in
Greece seems to be interactional (rather than transactional), especially among young
and, interestingly, among elderly people. The Greeks seem to have endorsed the
British Telecom advertising slogan ‘‘It’s good to talk’’. To call friends and relatives
is a social need or an obligation which has to be obeyed. Failure to make such calls
can be seen as lack of interest or concern and even as aloofness and snobbery which
may result in negative judgements, complaints and even sanctions. The more-or-less
obligatory regular telephone contact to simply exchange news or chat among
friends, especially in big cities, seems to have replaced the casual, unexpected visits
people used to pay in the past. A telephone call is more immediate and thus pre-
ferred to sending letters or cards on many social occasions. Expectedly, such atti-
tudes lead to frequent and lengthy calls causing dismay to those who might be trying
to get in touch in the meantime. Consequently, complaints for either prolonged lack
of contact or busy lines are not infrequent [see examples (12)–(15)] and reflect a kind
of friendly sanctions, thus constituting legitimate sequences of the opening. These
are often expressed indirectly and playfully, as we will see below.

2.2. Theories of humour and conversational data

Linguistic theories, at least in their initial stages, are strongly influenced by the
type of data they are first formed to account for. A standard example is reliance on a
single language, for example, English (or in fact American English) for the best part
of the last century. Neither Generative Grammar nor pragmatic theories escaped
from this pitfall as they were initially conceived. At its inception, CA was also bound
to the American cultural context. Humour theory seems to be modelled on the type
of text it set out to cater for, i.e. the joke. Conversational humour, insightfully dis-
cussed in the work of Norrick (1993) and Kotthoff (1996, 1999), for instance, has
had to draw on theories not focusing on humour, and has been largely descriptive.

2 l
" is the imperative of the verb "o 
‘come’ and is used in the opening sequences of informal
telephone interactions between closely related interlocutors. See Pavlidou (1994: 495) and more specifi-
cally Pavlidou (1995) where the variety of functions of this lexical item are explored.
The history of these opening gambits is far from clear and their rendition into English very difficult.
It is noteworthy, however, that similar expressions are also found in other languages, like pronto ‘ready [to
take your call]’ in Italian, prosı´m ‘I beg [the favour of your call]’ in Czech, diga ‘say [your message]’ or the
more old-fashioned mande ‘command [me to answer you]’ in Spanish (Mey, 1993: 228).
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 745

The GTVH is, in our view, the only full-fledged semantico-pragmatic theory of
humour today which is coherent, formalizable and epistemologically interesting. It
expands Raskin’s (1985) model to include information beyond the semantic level
and account for humorous texts of any length or genre (Attardo, 2001). This model
has never been applied to text types similar to the ones under investigation, but we
consider that (a) our data constitute a good case study for testing its validity and (b)
the present analysis could contribute to useful modifications of the theory. For pre-
sent purposes the following premises will suffice:

1. For a text to be funny it must be (fully or in part) compatible with two scripts
opposed to each other.
2. Humorous texts adhere to a special kind of co-operative principle consisting
of maxims jointly amounting to the Non-Bona-Fide (NFB) mode of
communication, where speakers are not committed to the truth of what they
3. Humorous texts are informed by the following 6 basic parameters or
Knowledge Resources (KRs):
1. Script Opposition (SO) (see 1 above).
2. Logical Mechanism (LM): the way in which the two scripts are brought
3. Situation (SI): objects, participants, activities, etc. i.e. the context.
4. Narrative Strategy (NS): narrative organisation of the text, including
adjacency pairs and figures of speech.
5. Target (TA): the ‘‘butt’’ of a joke.
6. Language (LA): information necessary for the verbalisation of the text.

The GTVH includes additional insights from pragmatics, text linguistics, and
theory of narrativity, although its semantic origin (i.e. Raskin, 1985) is still promi-
nent, in our view. The boldest attempt at applying the model to material similar to
ours is an analysis of a TV sitcom episode (Attardo, 2001: 128–134). The differences
between sitcoms and telephone call openings are too obvious to require mention.
Yet, the dialogic nature of both types distinguishes them significantly from both
jokes and narratives.
Notice first, that unlike in jokes, where the boundaries of the text are clear, in a
dialogue, the unit of analysis is not immediately identifiable. Every turn typically
serves as the trigger for the next one and by consequence, in playful dialogue, a
chain of humorous utterances is created, with jab and punch lines interacting with
each other and with bona fide material to co-construct the text. It is, in fact, unclear
whether jab or punch lines are the objects of investigation. In Attardo (2001: 82–83),
jab lines are defined in opposition to punch lines mainly on the basis of structural
criteria: the punch line (Attardo, 1994, passim, 2001: 83) is final in jokes, while the
jab occurs ‘‘in the body of the text’’, i.e. in any non-final position. Semantically, the
two concepts are assumed to be identical. Textually, they are supposed to differ not
only in terms of position but also in terms of function: the jab is non-disrupting the
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narrative while the punch is identifiable as the disjunctor, i.e. the element which
forces the reader to switch to the second script. In other words, the punch has a
disruptive function by definition (and in accordance with its structural value in the
However, if the text analysed is an adjacency pair, both turns of which include
funny instances, it seems arbitrary to decide that the second one qualifies as a punch,
simply because of the position it occupies. Similarly, if the text consists of a series of
adjacency pairs, playful turns may be interrupted by bona fide ones before the
playful key is resumed. Here again, it seems arbitrary to consider the last playful
utterance as a punch line unless the contribution of the functional criterion of dis-
ruption is clearly and independently specifiable. We suggest that the structural/
positional difference, which, as already pointed out, presupposes a clear segmenta-
tion of the text of analysis in a non ad-hoc manner, should be considered in playful
dialogue in relation to the degree of disruption effected by the humorous line under
analysis (this will be discussed below).
Two examples from our data will suffice to illustrate the issue:

(1) C: ring
A: nai;
C: io rgo;
A: ela
C: hi [sic]
A: woui
C: kala eı́sai;
A: mia wara. Esu;

C: ring
A: yes?
C: George?
A: come on
C: hi [sic]
A: hui (hi)
C: are you well? [how’re you?]
A: very well [and] you?

The playful adjacency pair ‘‘hi’’/‘‘hui’’ [discussed below in detail as (11) and
in footnote 16] takes up the slot of the greeting sequence, and is followed by
a ‘‘howareyou’’ sequence as predicted by CA. In this sense, it is difficult to
detect a disrupting function in either of these turns. Therefore, although struc-
turally ‘‘hui’’ could be considered a punch line (as occurring in the second
turn of the relevant adjacency pair, followed by a bona fide sequence), we will
consider it a jab line as it does not exhibit a clearly disruptive function. In the case
of (2),
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 747

(2) C: ring
A: nai;
C: ówi
A: a! esu eı́sai; ti ‘ówi’ le& paidaki mou;
C: ela re, ti kanei&; ti nea;
A: kala, esu ewei& exodo;

C: ring
A: yes?
C: no
A: ah, it’s you? what ‘no’ are you saying, my child?
C: come on re.part,4 how are you doing? What’s new?
A: fine and you? are you on furlough (off-duty)?

the playful utterance occurs in the first turn of the second adjacency pair (occupying
the identification/recognition slot). The second turn of the pair verifies that identifi-
cation has actually been achieved (probably through voice recognition) and is fol-
lowed by the expected ‘‘howareyou’’ sequence. It seems therefore counter-intuitive
to assign a disruptive function to it, simply because of the occurrence of the second
part in A’s response: ‘‘what ‘no’ are you saying’’.
In short, the canonical pattern is adhered to in both (1) and (2) so ‘‘hui’’ and ‘‘no’’
should be considered jabs as they are hardly disruptive.5

3. Challenging linguistic conventions

The telephone game can start at the very initial stage, the summons response.
Despite the variety of available options in Greek, some people use loan words, such
as ‘‘pronto’’ and ‘‘hello’’ or even totally idiosyncratic expressions such as " 
‘shoot’/‘fire away’, a loan from the football ground, ‘‘talk to me’’ or ‘‘yellow’’

Both " and " [in example (12)] are related untranslatable particles, they are, therefore, inserted
transliterated in the literal English translation. They frequently accompany terms of address, reinforcing
their positive or negative load although deriving from the Classical Greek adjective !ó& ‘stupid’. They
are very frequent in everyday conversations and mark the context as informal (see Makri-Tsilipakou,
2001; Tannen and Kakava, 1992, and footnote 19).
Attardo (2001: 81) does address the problem of identifying the end of a narrative as a prerequisite for
identifying the punch line (since end-point is its defining feature) and proposes possible empirical techni-
ques for the segmentation of the text vector, for material of a completely different kind from the data
under investigation. His actual analysis of the dialogic text in the case studies (ibid.: 128–134) shows that
he identifies as punch (rather than jab) lines (1) self-contained jokes (followed by serious sequences) and
(2) humorous utterances at the end of a scene (i.e. humorous utterances formally, structurally marked as
final). Such indicators are absent in our data.
748 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

echoing ‘‘hello’’ from a well-known joke.6 Apparently, when answerers expect a call
from a close friend, they may consider it appropriate to indicate their readiness to
play from the very beginning. Rarely do callers ignore this invitation, so they tend to
react equally playfully. Interlocutors may be in a ‘‘joking relationship’’ and this is
reflected in the ways they enter their conversations (see Sacks, [1970] 1995: 206)
because as Norrick (1993: 6) suggests, ‘‘these histories of joking have much relevance
for any interactions of the people involved’’. Examples (3) and (4) are illustrative:

(3) C: ring
A: talk to me! [sic]
C: ti ‘talk to me’ eı́n’ auta; ego den spik inglis.

C: ring
A: talk to me! [sic]
C: What ‘talk to me’ are these? I don’t speak English.

(4) C: ring
A: pronto
C: ela re, ti ‘pronto’ eı́n’ autó; ma& to paı́zei& Italó&;

C: ring
A: pronto
C: come on re.part what ‘pronto’ is this? Are you trying to pass for an Italian?

In (3) the caller comments on the inappropriateness of the answerer’s expression by

playfully pretending rudimentary knowledge of English, and also adopting a funny
accent. In (4), the caller recognises his friend’s voice (despite the unusual expression
used), as well as the origin of the foreign word and teases him for attempting to
adopt a foreign identity. So ‘pronto’ activates a script, roughly describable as ‘a
telephone call response to summons by an Italian/to an Italian/in Italy’. In the
absence of a pre-existing linguistic environment to activate the second, opposed
script (to the effect that there are no Italians but Greeks involved and the event is
taking place in Greece), this situational script is not activated by a linguistic unit as
such.7 However, in accord with Schegloff’s ([1968] 1972: 357) suggestion, the tele-
phone ring should be regarded as a summons parallel to a linguistically encoded
one, which can be seen as activating the situational script described above.8 Given

The joke runs as follows: In an EFL class for children, the teacher is asking them to produce utterances
using the words ‘‘green’’, ‘‘yellow’’, and ‘‘pink’’. A number of pupils perform as expected until Bobos (a
stereotype for a naughty pupil) comes up with the following: ‘‘I’m doing my homework when suddenly the
phone rings: ‘green, green!’, I pick it up and say ‘yellow!’ but I get no answer so I hang up: ‘pink!’’’.
Unlike the case of psychological theories and AI where scripts are understood as merely experiential/
cognitive objects, the GTVH assumes scripts to be evoked by linguistic units (Attardo, 1994: 200).
It may prove to be the case that for conversational humour a single lexical unit activates (simul-
taneously) the two (partially overlapping and) non-congruous scripts. This is a separate issue, for which
data other than those under investigation can be illuminating.
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 749

this proviso, the SO can be easily identified as ‘normal/abnormal’ and ‘Greek/Ita-

lian’.9 The same applies to example (3), where the additional SO specification has to
be not only ‘Greek/English’ but also ‘conventional response to summons/order to
Even when the answerer uses one of the conventional options to respond to the
summons, the caller does not miss the opportunity to initiate play, as in the follow-
ing examples:

(5) C: ring
A: parakalo ;
C: parakaleı́& 10 polu;

C: ring
A: please?
C: do you beg a lot?

(6) C: ring
A: parakalo ;
C: mZn parakala& kai polu

C: ring
A: please?
C: don’t beg too much

(7) C: ring
A: parakalo ;
C: poion parakaleı́& kai giatı́ ton parakaleı́&;

C: ring
A: please?
C: who are you begging and for what?

The expression l! ‘please’, is a verb meaning ‘to request politely’ or ‘beg’,
also used in response to summonses, thanks and apologies.11 For the explanation of
the above examples, we consider Giora’s (1997: 185) ‘graded salience hypothesis’

For Raskin (1985: 113–114), SOs are first characterised as ‘normal/abnormal’, ‘actual/non-actual’
and ‘possible/impossible’ and further instantiated in more concrete ‘mid-level’ ones: ‘good/bad’, ‘life/
death’, ‘obscene/non-obscene’, ‘money/no-money’, ‘high/low stature’. Once again it seems to be the case
that the joke orientation of the theory restricts the possibilities of SO to standard options of referential
humour in standard jokes. Different types of humorous utterances will necessitate different oppositions at
Pl"ı´& and its socially determined variant l& in (6) are both second person singular
forms of the verb l! ‘request politely’.
750 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

(GSH) most illuminating;12 here, salience is understood as a function of four para-

meters: conventional meaning, familiarity, frequency, and ‘‘givenness status’’. In the
context under consideration, l! ‘please’ as issued in response to summons is
salient as ranking high on all four parameters (with the notable exception of ‘fre-
quency’) in the canonical pattern. By recontextualising it, the caller issuing the
humorous utterance opts for a less salient interpretation, thus refusing to recognise
its appropriateness (i.e. discarding the contextually most salient interpretation). In
this way, the caller presents him/herself as ‘‘someone willing to suspend the con-
versational business at hand for a laugh’’ (Norrick, 1993: 60). The humorous effect
created here aims at attacking conventional use as ‘too formal’, or appropriate for
out-group members only.
In other examples, the reason for recontextualisation is overt. Compared to
alternatives like 
‘yes’ or the more colloquial "l ‘come’, l! ‘please’ is
perceived as more formal (along with l""" ‘speak-pl’ or the more old-fashioned
oı´ " ‘order-imp and " ó& ‘go ahead’). In the following examples callers appear
to be challenging the appropriateness of the response in terms of register, since the
answerer is a close friend:

(8) C: ring
A: parakalo ;
C: ti parakaleı́& re, o anasZ& 13 eı́mai.

C: ring
A: please?
C: what are you begging re.part, I am Thanasis.

The criticism becomes explicit in the caller’s reaction in example (9), where the
caller assumes 
‘yes’ to be a more appropriate response and makes a playful
metalinguistic comment challenging the answerer as if she were a child being
admonished for inappropriate verbal behaviour.

In response to thanks/apologies it means ‘‘I beg of you not to mention your gratitude/debt’’. The
definitions of lo are: 1. asking politely, begging (of somebody to do something); 2. in different
expressions (often accompanied by you-SING/PL) through which something is requested politely, per-
mission and orders are given. 3. as a positive response to a question, request or thanks. (Similar to prego,
je vous en prie. . ..). Evidently, whether the particular use in question belongs to 1 (asking politely) or 3
(conventionalized response to request/summons), the senses are not dissimilar (Leksiko tis Kinis Neoelli-
nikis, p. 1020).
GSH was developed for and addressed a different issue, namely salient meanings in relation to
priority in interpretation.
Names and surnames in these examples are replaced by fictitious ones.
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 751

(9) C: ring
A: parakalo ;
C: de lene korı́tsi mou ‘parakalo ’. ‘Nai’ lene ótan apantoun sto tZlefono.
e sto ewoun mayei;
A: MiwalZ, ase tZ dialexZ . erimeno tZlefono apó to dieuyuntZ tou
swoleı́ou, gi autó m’ ewei faei Z eugeneia.
C: Kala, pao paso.

C: ring
A: please?
C: they don’t say ‘please’ my girl. They say ‘yes’ when they answer the phone.
Haven’t they taught you that?
A: Michali, stop lecturing me. I’m expecting a call from the head master,
that’s why I’m being troubled with politeness.
C: Well, pass.

The answerer justifies her opting for a formal variant and the caller accepts the
answerer’s justification. In terms of Script Opposition (SO), ‘normal/abnormal’ is to
be supplemented with ‘responding to summons/requesting politely’ in all these cases,
while in (9) where the speaker pretends to be admonishing the addressee for con-
versational norms, ‘adult to adult’ is opposed to ‘adult to child’. Needless to say that
none of the mid-level oppositions are exhibited in this data. Interestingly, the Logi-
cal Mechanism Knowledge Resource (LM KR) here can be specified as ‘‘ignoring
the obvious’’ (see Attardo, 2001: 27). The Language Knowledge Resource (LA KR)
will accommodate information such as pun and metalinguistic comment [for (9)].
Inappropriateness in terms of register is obviously related to the degree of intimacy
between interlocutors. Interestingly, it is as if callers assume that answerers should
know that a friend is calling, so they should opt for less formal alternatives.14 This
assumption may reflect appreciation of the telephone as a device for maintaining
social contact and intimacy rather than conducting business where a more formal
code would be required. On the surface, the Target Knowledge Resource (TA KR)
is the addressee but in essence the attack aims at the conventions used.
However, callers are not deterred from reacting playfully, even when the response
is the perfectly informal and most frequent 
‘yes’ as in (2) repeated here as (10)
for ease of reference:
Similar reactions are triggered by summons responses with l""" ‘speak’, the second person plural
of the verb le! ‘say’, also used in contexts of formality to address a single addressee.

C: ring
A: legete; ‘speak-PL’
C: ti legete; ‘what ‘speak-PL’?’

Appropriateness of register is a rich source of humour in telephone call openings between young closely
related interlocutors, to be discussed later in relation to failure of recognition (Section 4.2).
752 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

(10) C: ring
A: nai;
C: ówi
A: a! esu eı́sai; ti ‘ówi’ le& paidaki mou;
C: ela re, ti kanei&; ti nea;
A: kala, esu; ewei& exodo;

C: ring
A: yes?
C: no
A: ah, it’s you? what ‘no’ are you saying, my child?
C: come on re.part, how are you doing? What’s new?
A: fine and you? are you on furlough (off-duty)?

As it transpires from the intonation pattern of the utterance, the implied message
in the fourth turn is ‘‘how can you be so stupid’’ reinforced by the diminutive form

‘child-dim’) which sounds belittling in this context. However, the next
adjacency pair resumes the expected tenor in the exchange of ‘howareyous’, verify-
ing the assumption that no negative evaluation was in fact intended by either inter-
locutor. Interestingly, it is the third turn which is genuinely incongruous here and
could be considered a punch line, on these grounds. However, the fourth one is also
playful as evidenced by its intonation pattern, rather than the actual lexical items used.
Regardless of whether the GTVH could accommodate suprasegmentally provided
information, this fourth turn, although final [i.e. occurring before the ‘bona fide’ (BF)
mode is resumed] it is certainly less striking, funny or incongruous than the preceding
one. It might, therefore, be useful to include considerations of relative incongruity in
decisions on the discrimination between jab and punch lines in dialogue.
Although the high salience of 
‘yes’ in these contexts is indisputable (see, e.g.
Sifianou, 1989: 530), callers often invent humorous devices to challenge its use,
echoing, for instance, the answerer’s response to the extent of imitating the tone of
voice and the intonation originally used, or responding to it with an alternative
summons response, like l! ‘please’. Thus what seems to underlie all these
reactions is an attack on conventional summons responses, irrespective of actual
linguistic realisation, as a signal of playful disposition.15 The SO in (10) is probably
‘actual/non-actual’, ‘responding to summons/answering a question’. The interest
here lies in interpreting 
‘yes’ as a(n) (positive) answer to a question rather than as
a response to summons, providing its antonym in the humorous utterance. There-
fore, once again the speaker selects the meaning which is least salient in the given
context, as with the l! ‘please’ examples.
Similar defiance of conventions is evidenced in playful greetings, as in (1),
repeated here as (11):

Such reactions to summons and summons responses are reminiscent of Schegloff’s (1979: 39) ‘‘joke
first’’ strategy. See also Norrick (1993: 21–25).
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 753

(11) C: ring
A: nai;
C: io rgo;
A: ela
C: hi [sic]
A: woui
C: kala eı́sai;
A: mia wara. Esu;

C: ring
A: yes?
C: George?
A: come on
C: hi [sic]
A: hui (hi)
C: are you well? [how are you?]
A: very well [and] you?

In this instance, after mutual recognition has been achieved, the caller uses hi to
greet his interlocutor who responds with the totally irrelevant word o
‘habit’.16 In
all probability o
is not intended as a word but as a nonsense sequence allitera-
tively connected to the playful code switching ‘hi’. The SO can be specified as ‘nor-
mal/abnormal’, ‘sense/nonsense’. Alliteration and ‘non-word’ will appear under LA.
The TA, however, may well be ‘attack on the use of loan words’ if there is any TA at
all.17 Otherwise, we are still dealing with a possibly culture-bound phenomenon of
‘abuse of verbal humour/abuse of language for the hell of it’. It is perhaps revealing
in this connection that this particular joke triggered more laughter from Greek
audiences than any other in the data.18

4. Challenging distance

Although the instances analysed so far are not openly confrontational, one could
discern covert aggression, especially if we accept Norrick’s (1993: 60) suggestion that
‘‘puns rank high on the scale of aggression’’. However, aggression under cover of a
playful key is most obvious in cases where the answerer has not been in touch with
the caller as frequently as, or at the moment that, the caller wishes contact to be
established. Here the target is not a linguistic convention but the answerer’s actual

is a colloquial word meaning habit, usually strange or bad.
Alternatively, the TA of the whole pair may be the norm indicating that greetings are not as neces-
sary in Greek as they are in other languages (see Sifianou, 2002).
We have checked our data with other native speakers of Greek to assess that they sound as funny as
we thought them to do.
754 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

social behaviour towards a close friend. This is how we suggest that the following
example, among others, is to be interpreted:

(12) C: ring
A: nai;
C: ti ‘nai’ bre malaka; me poion mila& tósZn o ra;
A: ‘nai’ re malaka. umZ yZke& na ma& parei& tZlefono;
C: ase re to ra, ta dika sou. Ti gı́netai; kala;
A: ta ı́dia. Esu kala eı́sai;

C: ring
A: yes?
C: what ‘yes’ vre.part you jerk? With whom have you been talking for so long?
A: ‘yes’ re.part you jerk. You have remembered to call us?
C: drop it re.part now, yours (news). Is everything well?
A: the same. You, are you well?

The answerer’s response indicating readiness for communication is challenged by

the caller, pretending to be angry for having had to cope with a busy line for long.
This caller feels entitled to use the swear word l& ‘jerk’ along with the particle
".19 Aggression is further assumed in the same turn, with the caller’s enquiry
about the identity of the previous interlocutor, which is promptly interpreted as a
rhetorical question and therefore receives no answer. Instead, the answerer repeats

‘yes’ and uses the same term of address and a similar structure to challenge his
friend for infrequent contact. To signal the distance he attributes to the caller, he
uses the 1st person plural pronoun ( & ‘us’) inappropriately, probably transferring
the plural marker of formal politeness from the addressee (you) to the speaker (us).
Laughter follows and the caller who initiated the game switches to ‘howareyous’.
Aggressive utterances are interestingly reinforced with overstatements as in the
following example:

(13) C: ring
A: legete;
C: ela re malaka se cawno tóse& mere&. Ti legete kai xelegete;
C: s’ ecawna wye& kai prowye&. ou brZ ka douleia.

C: ring
A: speak-pl?

The word lka& literally means masturbator but it is commonly used typically between young
males but also some females to indicate in-groupness and intimacy. See also footnote 4 on ".
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 755

C: come on re.part you jerk. I’ve been looking for you for so many days.
C: I was looking for you yesterday and the day before. I’ve found a
job for you.

As it transpires from the caller’s second turn, o "& ""& ‘so many days’ is merely
‘‘yesterday’’ and the day before. The intonation pattern used in the caller’s first
utterance signals indignation, but it is really in the second component of the same
turn that the playfulness of the first one becomes apparent. In this case, the ironic
echo of the summons response is further marked through an additional repetition
prefixed with ", a bound morpheme (much like the English ‘‘un’’) usually suggest-
ing a reversal of the action expressed in the main verb, indignation or indifference.20
Here it is evidently pure wordplay with the implication ‘‘This is an urgent matter
and you (being an asshole) respond to the summons in a formal, cool and neutral
manner’’. In other words, indignation is rampant throughout this exchange, but the
playful challenge to the response follows the first head-on attack, thus mitigating the
aggressive tone of the first utterance (despite being indignant itself). Aggression and
overstatement can merge in a single utterance.
In another example, this combination reaches the extremes of the caller’s saying
 " o! ! ‘I’ll kill you’ followed by the prospective murderer’s motive "
´ ! ó o !ı´ ‘I’ve been looking for you all morning’.21 Exaggeration and
overstatement are strongly preferred to understatement or litotes. Traditional figures
of speech are accommodated under the NS KR in Attardo (2001, passim). There-
fore, ‘overstatement’ should appear under NS. Exaggeration may also be a culture-
specific tendency, with overstatement understood as the linguistic expression of
overreaction. Under SO, the ‘normal/abnormal’ opposition can be further specified
as ‘trivial/non-trivial’, i.e. treating trivial matters as if they were of the utmost
importance. Aggressive humorous utterances require obviously a specification of the
TA KR. On the surface, what is targeted is the particular addressee. In essence,
however, the target is a type of social behaviour.

4.1. Being indirect through insincere enquiries

Interestingly, all complaints in our data are performed indirectly through off

record strategies, mainly enquiries (see Brown and Levinson, 1987: 221, 223), as in
(12) above. This type of utterance (‘‘who have you been talking to for so long?’’)
appears frequently in our data but is rarely answered, unlike in the following
example (14):

This is an extremely productive mechanism in that " can practically prefix any word to challenge its
information content or contextual appropriateness.
On the dissociation between words and actions in Greek, see Hirschon (1992).
756 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

(14) C: ring
A: poio& eı́nai parakalo ;
C: ela . . . Ypourgeı́o ekeı́; pou milate tósZn o ra;
A: ela mpampa, esu eı́sai; milousa me mia fı́lZ mou.
C: kala kai ti legate tósZn o ra; to Kupriakó lunate;
A: perı́pou. 0Asto to ra autó. ia pe& mou ti kanei&;

C: ring
A: who is it please?
C: come on . . .Ministry there? Where [sic] have you been talking for so long?
A: hi dad, is that you? I’ve been talking to a friend.
C: OK and what have you been talking about for so long? Have you been
solving the Cyprus issue?
A: just about. Drop it now. Just tell me how you are.

Here the caller camouflages his frustration for having been unable to get through to
his daughter for some time, enquiring whether he has actually got through to a
Ministry (where lines are constantly engaged). This is followed by another enquiry,
rather incongruous for the assumed Ministry context, concerning the identity of the
addressee’s previous interlocutor. Thus, the caller deliberately mixes up two distinct
scripts exhibiting the opposition ‘father to daughter’/‘member of public to civil ser-
vant’ with
l"; ‘speak’ (2nd person plural marking formality) as the linguistic
signal of the confusion. The daughter in this case does provide a response (probably
as an expression of respect for her father), but apparently does not address the issue
implied in the father’s question, i.e. the length of the call. As a consequence, in his
next turn, the father further enquires playfully whether she has been trying to solve
the Cyprus issue with her friend, a good reason for a lengthy call. The absurdity of
the suggestion (discussing a serious political issue instead of simply chatting with a
friend on the phone) points, once again, to the opposition of two distinct scripts. A
similar case is reflected in (15):

(15) C: ring
A: nai;
C: geia sa&
A: geia sa&
C: ya Z yela na kano mia aı́tZsZ ston [OTE
A: [Sorry! [sic]
C: gia na piaso grammZ
A: ela!
C: kala pósZ o ra mila&;
A: e de mı́laga kai para polu
C: xerei& pósZ o ra mila&;
C: ring
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 757

A: yes?
C: hello to you-pl
A: hello to you-pl
C: I’d like to make an application to [Telecom
A: [Sorry!
C: to get a free line
A: hi
C: how long have you been talking on the phone?
A: eh, I haven’t been talking for very long
C: do you know for how long you’ve been talking?

Here the caller is not satisfied with making an insincere enquiry or with the
answerer’s apology (‘‘sorry’’), offer of reconciliation and willingness to listen ("l
‘come’ ‘‘hi’’) but continues with directly impinging on the addressee’s private space
issuing an aggressive request for information (9th turn), which is clearly a reprimand
(i.e. ‘you’ve been talking for too long’). Interestingly, the off-record utterances used
reinforce the threat to the face rather than mitigating it, as they are standardly
expected to do on theoretical grounds.
The complaints expressed in (13)–(15) can be explained in GTVH terms as fol-
lows: The SO is ‘normal/abnormal’, ‘presence/absence of interest (or desire) of x to
contact y’. This can be further specified as ‘availability/non-availability at the
moment caller wishes to establish contact’ [examples (12), (14), (15)] and ‘frequency/
infrequency of contact’ [answerer’s second turn in (12) and (13)]. Besides, the SO in
(14) and (15) can be further specified as ‘home/public service’. Interestingly, the LM
is ‘‘false analogy’’ in both examples. Notice that (12) contains an additional jab line
To K
ó l "; ‘Have you been solving the Cyprus issue?’ which focuses on
criticism of lengthy calls justifiable only in case very important issues (of State) are
involved. Hence the relevant SO at this point is probably ‘trivial/non-trivial’. What
brings together all cases of complaint is expectedly the TA. Crucially, it is not only
the addressee who is being targeted but also a certain type of social behaviour, often
adhering to the social convention of lengthy chats on the phone. In the examples of
the following section the trigger of the complaint is specifiable within the SO KR as
‘success/failure of recognition’.

4.2. Failure of recognition

Since overt self-identification is a dispreferred strategy in Greek (see Section

2.1), enquiries like o
o& "ı´ 
; ‘who is it?’, by giving proof of inability to
recognize the caller’s voice, frequently elicit teasing and joking instead of
straightforward responses, (providing further clues for recognition). Failure of
recognition may reflect on the relationship, and playfulness defuses the serious-
ness or embarrassment involved. ‘‘Voice recognition can . . . be involved in some
of the more creative uses to which people put the communicative affordances of
758 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

telephones’’ and facilitates playing ‘‘intimacy at a distance’’ (Hutchby, 2001:

108). A case in point is the following:

(16) C: ring
A: parakalo ;
C: poio& eı́nai;
A: panto& ówi o eó&
C: asteiakia e; kala eı́sai;

C: ring
A: please?
C: who is [it]?
A: at any rate, it’s not God.
C: little jokes, eh? Are you well?

The answerer’s second turn playfully asserts that his identity is to be detected in
the caller’s immediate environment, indicating confidence that this second chance
should suffice as a clue for recognition, which does in fact prove to be the case.
In the following exchange (17), it is the answerer who fails to identify the caller
[certainly a commoner case than (16)]:

(17) C: ring
A: nai;
C: ela re;
A: poio&;
C: kala oute tZ fonZ mou den anagnorı́zei& pia;
A: poio& eı́nai, re mastora;
C: o Ko sta&, re anaı́syZte.

C: ring
A: yes?
C: come on re.part
A: who [is it]?
C: well, you don’t even recognise my voice any more?
A: who is it re.part governor (mate)?
C: Costas, re.part, you insensitive [ass].

Failure of recognition is first handled with a mild complaint, possibly for pro-
longed absence of contact (
 ‘any more’), to which the answerer responds with an
in-group term of address ("  o ‘re.part governor’) so as to partly fulfil the
addressee’s expectations, though still requesting his actual identity. The caller is now
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 759

forced to self-identify and proceeds with a straightforwardly insulting term of

address (‘‘you insensitive ass’’).
In example (18), the caller responds playfully, as in a game, instead of self-identi-
fying, confident that she is speaking to the intended addressee.

(18) C: ring
A: nai;
C: nai, ZmZ trZ esu;
A: nai, poio& eı́nai;
C: den katalabe&, e; kala, ta sZmeio no ego auta.
A: ela Ioanna, se katalaba, plaka sou kano.
C: a, eı́pa ki ego . Ti kanei&;

C: ring
A: yes?
C: yes, Dimitri is that you?
A: yes, who is [it]?
C: you haven’t understood, eh? Well, I make a note of these [things].
A: come on Ioanna, I recognized you. I’m just pulling your leg.
C: and I was wondering. How are you?

The humorous utterance appears in the caller’s second turn " l"&, ";
l´,   "
! ! "! a ‘you haven’t understood, eh? Well, I make a note of
these [things]’. The SO should contain something like ‘trivial/non-trivial’, pointing
again to overstatement and exaggeration [see discussion of example (13)]. The call-
er’s pseudo-threat to impose sanctions on the addressee makes him state that failure
of recognition was only assumed (l o  ! ‘I’m just pulling your leg’) and
that it was, therefore, a straight contribution to the game.
To appreciate the next example (19), one should bear in mind that the caller is not
simply repeating the answerer’s o
o& "ı´ 
; ‘who is it?’ but also imitating her tone
of voice:

(19) C: ring
A: nai;
C: Xristı́na esu;
A: nai, poio& eı́nai;
C: poio& eı́nai; o ano& eı́nai.
A: ela moró mou de se gno risa.
C: e, bebaia po & na ma& gnorı́sei&;

C: ring
A: yes?
760 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

C: Christina, [is that] you?

A: yes, who is [it]?
C: who is [it]? Thanos [it] is.
A: come on my baby I didn’t recognise you.
C: eh, of course how could you recognise us? (no wonder you didn’t recognise

In the same turn, the caller also identifies himself using first name accompanied,
however, by the 3rd person of ‘‘be’’ ("ı´ 
‘is’) echoing the construction the speaker
produced (instead of NP+1st person singular). To the answerer’s admission of
failure of recognition, the caller produces a complaint using the first plural to imply
distance [as already explained in connection with (12)].
If the Greek telephone game involves two players whose main purpose is to
socialise, then a major goal for them is to reinforce links with each other despite lack
of visual contact (see Mey, 1993: 198–199). This obstacle constitutes, in fact, one of
the main triggers of joking, as speakers feel they should be recognised immediately
upon offering a minimal voice sample. ‘‘People play recognition games over the
phone’’ (Sacks, [1972] 1995: 550). If the co-player fails to recognise the other on this
basis, s/he has scored lower than the game allows and is, therefore, to be ‘‘penalised’’
by the speaker who has made the first move. This is often achieved through teasing,
to which the ‘‘victim’’ is expected to respond in an equally jocular manner, so as to
finally recover lost ground through successful recognition of identity plus laughter to
show appreciation of the ‘‘penalising’’ comment. For this to be the case, however, a
presupposition should be satisfied to the effect that the interlocutors are actually
close enough to be legitimate players. If either of the prospective players does not
have ‘‘the requisite thoughts and feelings’’, any move (or attempt) at initiating the
game may abort.
Perhaps due to the particular sociocultural background of our subjects (typical
Greek students), the recognition part of the game may be so extensive as to become
a self-contained unit within the overall structure. So, devoting even a dozen turns to
this unit is not unusual. ‘‘Hide-and-seek’’ is also evidenced, as in a case where eight
turns precede the transactional part (if any) and the caller pretends to be making an
obscene telephone call. He starts his contribution with sighs, moans and the like,
only to be recognized after his second turn by the answerer who calls him to task
M o, "l óo ‘Mano, come on, cut the crap’. Two more turns follow with the
caller asking how he was identified and finally expressing his disappointment with
‘‘fuck you [sic] "l  o  !  ’’ ‘fuck you, I just wanted to play a trick on

4.3. Switchboard requests

Playfulness is also evidenced in switchboard requests, where it is least expected. In

such cases it is commonly initiated by the answerer, who is clearly not the intended
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 761

(20) C: ring
A: nai;
C: tZn 0Anna ya Z yela
A: po & tZ yelete akribo &; cZtZ Z tZganitZ ;
C: po & eı́ste kurı́a ElenZ;

C: ring
A: yes?
C: I would like [to talk to] Anna
A: how would you like her exactly? Grilled or fried?
C: how are you Mrs Eleni?

The answerer in this case transfers an appropriate switchboard request to a res-

taurant context, where the same expression would refer to how a customer would
wish their fish cooked.22 It may be the case that the answerer is implicitly criticising
the caller for using  "l ‘I would like’, instead of some other alternative.23 On
the other hand, it may reflect the answerer’s annoyance at being treated as a mere
intermediary, not being recognised or even greeted. Thus an appropriate request is
responded to with an infelicitous enquiry, as also evidenced in (21).

(21) C: ring
A: nai;
C: tZ Marı́a yelo
A: tZ yelei& polu;
C: ówi polu
A: tóte de stZ dı́noume, tZ dı́noume móno se ósou& tZ yeloun polu.

C: ring
A: yes?
C: I want [I’d like to talk to] Maria
A: do you want her very much?
C: not very much
A: then we won’t give her to you [pass her on], we give her only to those who
want her very much.

The meanings of el! ‘want’ are: 1. feel, express a tendency for something, 2. express a strong desire,
seek, 3. express a preference, an option and 4. feel, express sexual desire or consent to someone else’s
expressed desire. Characteristically, among the examples provided for each ‘sense’, only the ones for the
last category involve human direct objects. Therefore, the subcategorisational frame itself can be under-
stood as triggering the specific sexual connotation (Leksiko tis Kinis Neoellinikis, p. 585).
Other options in this context would be o ı´ "" lit. ‘will you give me’,  oo / "l 

l ! . . . ‘I would like/Could I talk to . . .’ (see Bakakou-Orfanou, 1988–1989).
762 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

The answerer here probably plays with the sexual connotation of "l! ‘want’ and
playfully refuses to perform as requested. In neither (20) nor (21) are answerers
treated as ratified participants, but because of their powerful positions they playfully
exploit their control of access to the intended addressee (see Sacks, [1972] 1995: 547).
These last examples are reminiscent of the playfulness and concomitant length
exhibited in playful reactions to summons responses [section 3, example (19)]. Our
proposal, once again, is to interpret them in terms of Giora’s (1997: 185) GSH, since
the meaning of "l! ‘want’ selected in the humorous utterances is evidently con-
siderably less salient in the given context than the one used in switchboard requests.
In terms of SO, (20) can be interpreted as ‘actual/non-actual’, ‘switchboard/restau-
rant service request’ and (21) as ‘expressing desire to speak to x/to have sex with x’.
Accordingly, the LM KR is probably ‘‘ignoring the obvious’’ (Attardo, 2001: 27).
The similarity with examples (5)–(8) can only show in a specification ‘pun’ under the
LA KR. However, unlike in almost all other cases discussed here, no attack on
conventions can be detected in (21), therefore, the TA KR will probably have to
contain only ‘addressee’. The humorous utterance in (20) is crucially issued by an
adult, therefore, it may well be interpreted as targeting the addressee’s failure to
abide by conventional means for a switchboard request.

4.4. Formality markers

Before concluding, we will consider very briefly the playful exploitation of form-
ality markers, as it is very common practice in this data. In examples (12) and (19),
the interlocutor who expresses a complaint either for prolonged lack of contact (12)
or failure of recognition (19) uses the plural of the personal pronoun to encode dis-
tance, which is actually the trigger of the complaint. In fact, interlocutors use an
atypical 1st person plural for self-reference rather than the formal 2nd person plural
for single addressees. The implication is that their addressees have distanced them-
selves to such an extent that formality would be more suitable.
In a different exchange, the caller’s first verbal turn is H ı´ Poolo
Eı´; ‘Is this Mrs Papadopoulou Eftichia?’. Here not only is the answerer
addressed with both surname and first name, but also in this order, as if the context
were a very formal exchange in the army or an old-fashioned civil service encounter.
To this, the answerer responds in an equally formal manner 
ı´ ‘speaking’ (for-
mal, old-fashioned, lit. ‘‘the same’’), apparently having failed to recognise the caller,
who now proceeds with his second turn using the formal plural D" "  !ı´ "
ó ; ‘you haven’t recognized-pl me yet?’. A couple more turns follow in the same
tenor and the joke actually comes through when the caller states D" """ l
ı´ "& ı´  " " ı´ ‘your-pl memory isn’t very good because we
were having coffee together yesterday’. Here, the formal plural is directly juxtaposed
to (and therefore clashes with) the clue offered for recognition, implying an informal
relationship between the interlocutors. Only then does the exchange resume its
expected tenor: 0El G
! o. D" "ı´ "   " "
& ó o o ‘Oh, hi
George, I didn’t expect you-sing to ring so soon’. Similarly, in the following exam-
ple, the caller identifies himself with D" "& Póolo& I! &, 3o
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 763

´ o& "

o, l  !  
 . . . ‘Corporal Papadopoulos Ioannis, 3rd
Infantry Battalion, I have the honour to . . .’ as if he were at his regiment in a formal
encounter with a higher ranking officer, while he is in fact calling his cousin, who
responds in an equally jocular manner and later congratulates him jokingly for
being a member of the ‘‘glorious’’ Greek army.
The tenor may also change in the opposite direction through the use of slang and
abusive terms of address such as l " o (slang for ‘mentally disturbed’) and
accompanying particle ("), !lo"ó ‘lucky ass’, ! o ‘lit. animal/idiot’, ó
‘stupid’ ! o  ‘you fat cow’, etc. Games played in this manner are reminis-
cent of the insult games played by black American children (Labov, 1972) and gen-
erally common in teenagers’ conversations. They are obvious examples of ‘‘mock
impoliteness’’ (Culpeper, 1996) since they are reciprocated and are neither intended
nor perceived as offensive.
The exploitation of register for humorous purposes seems to be a significant
characteristic of Greek discourse, with the notable help of the old diglossia situation
(see e.g. Canakis, 1994). An analysis of register humour in these data is attempted
elsewhere (see Antonopoulou and Sifianou, 2002). At this point, it should be simply
acknowledged that the GTVH provides the means for such an analysis, as it recog-
nises script oppositions holding between registers or register and subject matter.

5. Discussion and concluding remarks

In this paper, we have presented a proposal as to how playful exchanges in tele-

phone call openings could be analysed. Although the data is drawn from a specific
institutional context and the subjects belong to a specific sociocultural group, they
seem to us fairly representative of dialogic material to legitimise at least tentative
conclusions. We have had the double benefit of considering a type of data exhaus-
tively analysed by Conversation Analysis and of applying a very promising theory of
humour. We have experimented with a type of material this theory was not origin-
ally designed to cater for, but for which it can prove very illuminating, as we have
hopefully shown.
The points of general interest which have emerged can be summarised as follows:

1. Despite the institutional nature and organisational rigidity of telephone con-

versation openings, they seem to indicate that conversational material is not
always segmentable into distinct sequences of adjacency pairs. As Mey (1993: 252)
remarks, ‘‘once we take a look at real conversation, we see that the paired
sequences (greetings, questions-answers, requests-compliances, etc.) do not
account for anything like the majority of interchanges’’. For instance, in examples
(2)–(9), the third turn comes as a reaction to the second one, constituting in this
sense an adjacency pair. However, this second turn is traditionally regarded as
forming a pair with the summons. In fact, this seems typical of conversational data
where interlocutors co-construct the end product through alternation in exchan-
ging turns (see Mey, 1993: 9). In this sense, dialogues are in sharp contrast to story
764 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

telling, where the development and the end of a story is typically under the control
of one person, that is, the narrator. If identification of adjacency pairs presents
problems, even in institutionalised discourse such as telephone conversation
openings, it is evident that segmentation of longer exchanges in less institutiona-
lised contexts becomes exceedingly difficult. Consequently, the distinction between
jab and punch lines seems to require further elaboration of the criteria proposed
and possibly addition of others, at least for the purposes of humorous dialogue.
For instance, in examples (5)–(8) and (20)–(21), the speaker pretends to mis-
understand and recontextualises the preceding utterance so that it presents a script
opposition with its actual context (Norrick, 1993: 21). The recontextualisation is
triggered by the inherent semantic vagueness or ambiguity of a specific lexeme
(l! ‘please’ and "l! ‘want’, respectively), as is also the case in punning. It
also transpires from these examples that punning can be seen as representing ‘‘a
reaction to a previous turn’’, as Norrick (1993: 65) points out. However, our data
do not bear out his other remark to the effect that puns occur ‘‘most obviously in
the second position of an adjacency pair’’ (Norrick, 1993: 62). In other words,
puns appear to be reactions to something that has preceded but which need not be
a first turn of an adjacency pair, for the added reason that segmentation into
distinct sequences of adjacency pairs is problematic.
Moreover, puns have been attributed aggressive nature and disruptive function in
that they misconstrue and ‘‘redirect the flow of talk and action’’ (Norrick, 1993:
64). Wordplay in our data (whether punning or not) has been shown to be non-
disruptive, since speakers achieve identification/recognition at these points, as
predicted by CA. So what could be suggested here is that there are degrees of
aggression and degrees of disruption. A clear case of minimal, or even no dis-
ruption is example (1), where playful greetings occur in the position allotted to
greetings, followed by initial enquiries as expected. As discussed earlier, the level
of disruption is also low in the examples including wordplay on the response to
summons. Similarly, failure of recognition can also be low in disruption [e.g.: (16)].
Longer exchanges such as (17)–(21) can be seen as ranking higher on the
aggression and the disruption scales. Interestingly, examples like (12)–(13),
although high on the aggression scale, do not rank as high in terms of disruption,
since CA allows for contact related preemptive moves (Schegloff 1986: 138).
Therefore, it seems reasonable to posit only high ranking disruptions as places
marking natural segmentation of dialogue.
2. Contextual information and paralinguistic features appear to be fundamental
for the construction of the relevant scripts. In our data, the construction of the
first script depends on what is conventionally expected in the specific institutional
setting, while what is activated by lexical items contributes to the construction of
the (partially overlapping but opposed) second script. Situational scripts, that is
scripts depending on purely contextual and not necessarily lexical information, are
available in the GTVH and used for analysing register humour. In our data, for
instance, the ringing of the telephone can be seen as activating the script ‘telephone
interaction’. Imitating a person’s tone of voice, as in (19), or intonation pattern
employed, as in (13), also contribute significantly to the meaning of the utterances
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 765

discussed. To paraphrase Mey (1993: 241), any utterance, even the most unex-
pected ones, becomes highly meaningful when placed in the appropriate context.
More empirical work is probably required for the GTVH to accommodate con-
versational data, as it seems that, at least in principle, the theory is compatible
with such analyses.
3. In the case of telephone call openings, CA has proved to be very useful for the
specification of the content of certain situational scripts, as discussed above, in
addition to the specification of KRs such as NS and SI. The SI is constructed with
the aid of the conventions detailed in CA, which also constitute the basis for a
partial specification of NS, that is, the kind of speech acts performed. The LA KR
which seems to us underspecified in the GTVH is also relegated to a secondary
position by CA.

In view of the amount of playful exchanges in our data and the aggression
involved, we are also interested in considering their sociopragmatic function, which
lies obviously outside the mechanisms used. In addition, in a society where language
is frequently seen as a form of play (Hirschon, 1992; Mackridge, 1992), the function
of joking receives further significance. To this end, it seems useful to resort to
politeness theory, for which joking serves bonding purposes, an obvious priority for
any social group which is positive politeness oriented (Sifianou, 1992).
Specifically, on Brown and Levinson’s (1987) account, joking may be used to
emphasise shared background and values and also to attenuate face-threatening
acts. Interestingly, ‘‘echo’’ reactions to summons-responses [examples (5)–(8)] may
well be interpreted as face-threatening acts since they amount to criticism. On the
other hand, complaints, which abound in the data discussed, while by definition
among the most face-threatening acts, are in fact directed at both aspects (positive
and negative) of the addressee’s face. One could suggest here that the face of the
speaker is likewise threatened. Thus, the speaker who has a negative evaluation for
the addressee has to consider carefully if and how to express his/her frustration and
annoyance, because the situation is very delicate. Not expressing these negative
feelings would be the most polite way of behaving: ‘‘don’t do the FTA’’ in Brown
and Levinson’s (1987: 60) terms. However, such behaviour will not correct the sit-
uation and restore balance in accordance with the injunction. On the other hand, if
the speaker decides to perform the face-threatening act, s/he has to decide between
performing the act ‘‘on record’’ with or without redressive action, or ‘‘off record’’
(see Brown and Levinson, 1987; Olshtain and Weinbach, 1993). It is of interest that
our subjects prefer off-record utterances, but of a specific kind; which raises ques-
tions for the theory of politeness (cf Kotthoff, 1996: 307).
Off record utterances are advantageous for both interlocutors (see Brown and
Levinson, 1987; Sifianou, 1997). Since they have more than one plausible interpreta-
tion, they enable the speaker to avoid responsibility for having committed a particular
act, if s/he considers this necessary. At the same time, they also offer the option to the
addressee to attach to the utterance that particular interpretation s/he considers most
advantageous for him/herself. One could interpret both ‘‘echo’’ reactions to summons
responses (Section 3) and complaints about failure of recognition or contact (Section
766 E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769

4.2) as off-record utterances. Examples such as (5), (8) or (10) constitute implicit,
off-record criticisms of interlocutors’ behaviour, either in terms of convention chal-
lenge or genuine readiness to communicate. As in the case of serious key off-record
utterances, the addressee has a choice of interpreting the illocution as either threa-
tening or not. In the data under consideration, the choice is between either sticking
to the ‘‘social corrective’’ intention and/or to the playfulness (‘‘defunctionali-
zation’’), triggered by and triggering intimacy (Attardo, 1994: 323). Similarly, com-
plaints about failure of recognition or contact are expressed in an off-record
manner. Examples such as (12), (14) and (15), for instance, are off-record on more
than one levels. The enquiry is neither baldly on record ‘‘You’ve been talking for too
long’’, nor on record with redressive action ‘‘Why have you been talking for so
long?’’ The latter would leave the addressee the option of providing a serious
account for his/her behaviour (e.g.: length of the previous call could be due to set-
tling an important matter rather than to chatting). In fact, callers opt for off-record
alternatives introducing additional parameters such as the identity of the previous
addressee or the actual length of the previous interaction, parameters which may not
be of any real concern to the caller, who is obviously primarily concerned with the
difficulty in getting through. The interesting point is that such off-recordness is
anything but mitigating the FTA, as the utterances used actually reinforce it. They
impinge on the addressee’s privacy and/or call him/her to task in an aggressive
though indirect manner. Nevertheless, they are invariably interpreted as playful in
the specific context and receive either no response or equally playful reactions. The
aggression expressed is part of the game. As Hopper (1992: 185) suggests, drawing
on Bateson, ‘‘play emerges in imitation of combat’’.24 In fact, it only imitates real
aggression with interlocutors acting roles in the clear understanding that this face-
threatening behaviour, far from affecting their relationship negatively, will, on the
contrary, strengthen it (see Kotthoff, 1996: 320). This is evidenced in that such
interactions unexceptionally resume the ‘howareyous’, frequently produced in ways
expressing genuine concern.
In other words, in this context, the injunction ‘‘don’t do the FTA’’ has no place.
Similarly, negative politeness strategies are not expected and rarely found—quite the
contrary, they are occasionally ridiculed. Rather, it is positive politeness attitudes
that are conveyed through off-record devices, formed in ways which at first sight
seem to be on record. In relation to this context, nobody could suggest that inter-
locutors choose off-recordness because of the payoffs it affords in minimising face
threat. Humour is not used by interlocutors who want to perform serious threaten-
ing acts and need to be able to distance themselves from their acts (see Eggins and
Slade, 1997: 166). The ‘‘decommitment’’ function (Attardo, 1993: 554–555) is a possi-
bility not exploited, as the threat to be avoided is distance. Humour is not used here by
either subordinates to challenge the power structure or by those in power to exercise it
subtly (see Holmes, 2000: 178), but by equals who know each other well and use
humour as a solidarity-building device. Aggression can be seen as an attack on negative
politeness conventions, on formality and distance, as well as on telephone conversation

See also Tannen (1990) on the ‘‘ritual combat’’ strategy.
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 767

conventions in general. Jocular abuse is in fact exploited to extremes that verge on

rudeness, with frequent exchanges of abusive terms of address; yet no feelings
appear to be hurt. Reciprocity in the use of such terms goes hand in hand with the
exchange of superficial face-threatening illocutions of all kinds, reminiscent of a
table-tennis match. ‘‘Paradoxically, flying in the face of friendly politeness can build
rapport, because it signals a relationship which eschews such superficial conven-
tions’’ (Norrick, 1993: 73; Kotthoff, 1996, for an alternative explanation). The in-
group seems to be so tight that the individuals involved have a shared face and can
attack and retaliate without the fear of loss of face. Because of this, interlocutors can
transform a primarily transactional/referential speech event into an interactional/
social expressive one in order to strengthen their bonds and attack rule-governed


We would like to express our gratitude to S. Marmaridou and to the anonymous

reviewer for insightful comments. This paper is part of a longer project funded by
the Univeristy of Athens (Special Research Account 70/4/3555 and 70/4/5754).


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Eleni Antonopoulou is Associate Professor in Linguistics in the Faculty of English Studies, University of
Athens. She studied in Greece (BA Classics) and England (MA and PhD Linguistics). She has
published the books Agent-defocusing Mechanisms in Spoken English—A Cognitive Explanation of
Impersonalization (Athens, Parousia Monographs 16, 1991) and From the Philosophy of Language to the
E. Antonopoulou, M. Sifianou / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 741–769 769

Philosophy of Linguistics (Athens, Parousia Monographs 42, 1997) as well as a number of articles in books
and journals. Her main research interests are in the areas of Semantics, Pragmatics, Cognitive Linguistics,
Humour and Translation.
Maria Sifianou is Professor in Linguistics in the Faculty of English Studies, University of Athens. She
studied in Greece (BA in English) and England (MA, PhD in Linguistics). Her publications include the
books Politeness Phenomena in England and Greece (Oxford University Press, 1992), Discourse Analysis
(Leader Books, 2001) and a number of articles in books and journals. She has co-edited Themes in Greek
Linguistics (Benjamins, 1994), Anatomies of Silence (Athens, Parousia Monograph Series, 1999) Linguistic
Politeness across Boundaries: The Case of Greek and Turkish (Benjamins, 2001). Her main research inter-
ests include politeness phenomena and discourse/conversational analysis in an intercultural perspective.